We campaign in favour of women’s sexual and reproductive rights, in particular with respect to abortion. Our position on abortion is ‘pro-choice’. The present law in England, Wales, and Scotland is in practice more liberal than on paper. It makes abortion reasonably easily available to those who want one despite unnecessarily complex legal and medical formalities. It does not compel those with conscientious objections to take part in performing one. This position respects people’s differing interpretations of the right to life and its bearing on the issue of abortion. In Northern Ireland, however, abortion laws are in urgent need of whole scale reform, in order to move to a similar position to that of the rest of the UK.
It is best, of course, if every child is a wanted child and improved relationships and sex education (RSE), more widely and freely available contraception, and better education and services for young people can all help to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. However, for as long as abortion is needed, society should provide safe and legal facilities to provide it. Anything less would inevitably increase the number of illegal and unsafe abortions, and would be an infringement on a woman’s right to choose.
We defend the right for women to gain access to safe abortion with appropriate secular counselling and after-care and support liberalisation of the abortion laws, which would include: permitting women from Northern Ireland the same rights to free local abortions on the NHS as women in England, Wales and Scotland enjoy; decriminalisation of abortion across the UK, to stop women going to jail for what is nowadays a safe medical procedure; other measures to make access to safe, early abortions easier; and measures to enable exclusion zones around abortion clinics where needed to enable clients to access them free from unwanted challenge and intimidation from protesters (who would retain their right freely to express their views).
We are currently supporting the Back Off campaign, which aims to change the law to make it possible to establish protest-free zones around abortion clinics; and are part of the We Trust Women coalition, which seeks to take abortion out of criminal law. Both campaigns are being coordinated by BPAS. We sit on the steering group of Voice for Choice, Britain’s pro–choice coalition. In Northern Ireland, we are part of the Trust Women coalition, coordinated by Alliance for Choice.
Fewer than 2% of abortions are performed after 20 weeks and, contrary to anti-choice hype, research shows there has been no increase in survival rates for babies born before 24 weeks gestation. We oppose any changes to the law that seek to restrict access to abortion, such as imposing compulsory ‘counselling’, or introduce further obstacles to later abortion, or outlaw abortion on the basis of doctrine rather than on evidence.
During the passage of a number of recent bills, a number of amendments to the law on abortion have been introduced by those who wish to restrict a woman’s right to choose. However, these have all thankfully been defeated. For example, during the passage of the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, amendments proposed by Nadine Dorries MP that sought to reduce the number of weeks that a woman could access abortion were defeated.
During the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2011, Dorries proposed a further amendment around restricting access to pro-choice counselling services, which was also defeated. And in 2015, an amendment to the Serious Crime Act by Fiona Bruce MP that sought to make explicitly (instead of implicitly) illegal sex selective abortion – that was unnecessary and problematic in practice – was also defeated.
Although abortion in England, Wales, and Scotland can be accessed legally in most circumstances, the law does not extend to Northern Ireland. Abortion in Northern Ireland is unlawful in nearly all circumstances – it is only permitted where there is a real and serious risk to the woman’s mental or physical health and the risk is permanent or long-term. Consequently most women from Northern Ireland have to travel to Britain to obtain a legal abortion. We consider that this is an unequal situation which robs women in Northern Ireland of their fundamental rights to a basic healthcare service in Northern Ireland, leaving them as second-class citizens within the UK. In 2017, following a Supreme Court case surrounding the charging of Northern Ireland women to access NHS abortion services, the UK Government committed to funding these abortions in England. The Scottish and Welsh Governments also pledged to fund abortions for Northern Irish women. Humanists UK intervened in this court case and was involved in the subsequent campaign that brought about these changes.
In November 2015 the Northern Irish High Court ruled that abortion must also be legalised in all cases where there is a fatal foetal abnormality, or where a woman is pregnant due to rape or incest – and the current illegality in these situations is a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. This ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal in 2017. The case is now going to the Supreme Court, and Humanists UK are applying to intervene.
Finally, there is no requirement for schools to teach anything about consent, rape, abortion or other related topics as part of their curriculum. We campaign for full and comprehensive RSE to be made a compulsory subject in all state schools.
More details on humanist views on abortion can be found in a discussion page on our website.
What we’re doing
We are a member of the Voice for Choice coalition and we are a member of its steering group. We are also a member of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, and our Director of Public Affairs and Policy is also on the advisory group. We also work with and support Alliance for Choice in Northern Ireland, as well as other pro-choice groups across the UK such as Abortion Rights, FPA, Brook, Education for Choice and the Abortion Support Network.
We are currently supporting the Back Off campaign, coordinated by BPAS, which aims to change the law to make it possible to establish protest-free zones around abortion clinics. The campaign is necessary due to an intensification of anti-abortion protests around clinics, including activists displaying distressing images, filming people entering and leaving clinics, and physically touching women, as well as shouting abuse. The issue has got so bad that one clinic was forced to close in the summer of 2015. We presented a petition to No 10 on the issue, and subsequently supported an open letter to the Secretary of State for Health on the issue.
Such restrictions would not limit free speech as individuals would still be able to protest, but they would prevent anti-abortion activists from impinging upon the freedom and autonomy of others.
We are also part of the We Trust Women coalition, again coordinated by BPAS, which seeks to take abortion out of criminal law. It is wrong that women can go to prison – for life at that – for having an abortion; the UK is very backwards in this being the case. The law that causes this, the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, predates women’s suffrage by 57 years.
In 2012 we worked with Education For Choice and others to expose groups that are ideologically against abortion which have been making unevidenced claims around abortion and contraception in schools. Groups such as SPUC, LIFE and Lovewise have been found to be making unevidenced claims such as that abortion causes breast cancer, or leads to depression and suicide. In February 2013, Education For Choice published a report on this work.
Finally, we have been actively working with the European Humanist Federation on initiatives to progress women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights through the European Parliament, helping brief UK MEPs and working with our members and supporters to lobby them. We were disappointed in 2013 when hardliners were able to twiceblock the Estrella Report, but were pleased in 2015 when the Parliament passed both the Tarabella and Noichlreports, and when the European Commission rejected the ‘One of Us’ European Citizens’ Initiative the preceding year. We have also spoken out in favour of the legalisation of abortion globally at the UN Human Rights Council.
Humanists UK consults with its members on sexual and reproductive rights, abortion, fertility, and many other scientific and ethical issues. We welcome your comments on these subjects, which help us to form our policy and campaigns. To date, members have rarely expressed opposition to the legalisation of abortion.
You can also research and take up these issues with your MP and/or local authority, or write to a newspaper. Our Take Action Toolkit has advice on how to go about this.
You can support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.